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Three Prerequisites Before Communicating Feedback with Teachers
Plus three questions to determine if feedback is even necessary
“How can I communicate feedback so teachers hear it and apply it to their practice?”
This is one of the most common questions I hear from literacy leaders.
For many coaches, principals, and teacher leaders, it is also their #1 challenge.
Feedback being a consistent issue for me too, I started asking some critical questions:
Why is communicating feedback such a persistent and universal challenge?
What specific barriers are preventing leaders from communicating feedback?
How can leaders respond to these barriers and support professional growth?
I think the questions are important, but they are only a start.
With that, here are three rules I am following right now before I communicate feedback. I cannot promise they will address every situation. But I do think they can apply to many contexts to not only improve conversations between leader and teacher, but also reduce the stress and misunderstandings that accompany them.
Prerequisite #1: Ensure relationships and trust are established.
Grant Wiggins defined feedback as “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal” (2012).
While I agree with this definition, how feedback is communicated and received is where leader and teachers are challenged.
At least for me, these challenges are often due to not establishing relationships and trust with teachers.
I’ve been focused too much on performance and not enough on the person.
I’ve not taken enough time to get into classrooms regularly and understand their students and the environment.
I’ve failed to clarify the schoolwide goals through unclear or a lack of communication.
As a student and athlete, I thrived when trust was established with my teacher or coach. I needed to know that their intentions were authentic and centered toward improvement. They did this in a variety of ways, such as knowing my strengths and weaknesses and then using that information to foster growth. These educators also knew me as a person beyond the classroom or field.
The great thing about this process is relationships and trust improve the more we engage in collaborative conversations. Each interaction deepens all elements.
Try this: Know at least one personal thing about each teacher in your school. Commit it to memory. Then ask them about it from time to time during small talk (which is anything but small).
Prerequisite #2: Establish a shared language.
A friend of mine is a commercial pilot.
He was recently explaining to me the concept of a “shared mental model” in the airlines industry. Essentially, it’s a common understanding of certain terms and procedures for successfully flying a plane. Because there are always two pilots, they need to be able to communicate effectively when making decisions. For example, if one pilot adjusts the altitude, he/she will verbalize that to their co-pilot. If there is any confusion, they clarify it using this shared mental model.
What the airline industry is using (and effective schools do as well) is a framework.
And I would argue that in education, common understandings around concepts are more difficult to achieve, e.g. “focused instruction”, “student engagement”.
Yet they are necessary if leaders and teachers are expected to communicate effectively. Without a share language and understanding, leaders and teachers are more likely to disagree about the semantics, which creates challenges for facilitating conversation.
Try this: If you use a commercial literacy resource and you find it effective, discern the framework upon which it is based on, such as the gradual release of responsibility. You might have to ask the publisher’s representative. Then share out this framework with faculty, such as at a staff meeting, to examine it and establish a shared understanding of what the terms mean.
Prerequisite #3: First notice what teachers are doing well.
There’s a reason I positioned “Communicate Feedback” as one of the last strategies in my book - leaders too often fail to first appreciate and share what is going well.
Noticing and naming the instructional strengths that are already occurring in our classrooms is such an easy thing to do. Also known as “affirmations”, they disarm people’s defenses and open their minds up to more constructive dialogue. It’s harder to get defensive when teachers know leaders are coming from a source of appreciation.
Here are a few examples.
“When you invited students to help co-organize the classroom library, they were deeply engaged in the process.”
“Your students showed me their published pieces they posted on the interactive bulletin board. Thanks for empowering young writers!”
“Do you mind if I share a picture of that anchor chart with some other teachers? I think they would find it just as helpful for supporting readers.”
To be clear, affirmations are not blanket praise. They are evidence-based, aligned with an instructional framework, and connect the practice to student learning.
Affirmation = Evidence + Impact
Try this: Make a copy of the instructional framework you use in your school. Review it as you visit classrooms. Take one element of the language and use it when affirming for the teacher what’s going well and why.
I will soon be publishing Week 3 of the email course for Instructional Walks: “How to affirm promising literacy practices”. Sign up today to receive it tomorrow plus future posts.
To assess whether feedback is necessary, ask yourself these three questions first.
Have I spent enough time in this classroom that the students and teacher are used to me coming in, i.e. staying engaged in their learning while I visit?
How do I know that the teacher and I are on the same page with regard to the specific literacy topic I plan to bring up?
Can I leverage the previously noted strengths and connect at least one of them to a potential area for growth?
If you have a tough time answering these questions, remember:
You are not obligated to communicate feedback.
Continue to establish trust, clarity, and appreciation to remove any barriers to growth.
Tomorrow: Virtual PD, “Multiply Your Positive Influence”
I will be facilitating the first of four virtual workshops tomorrow night, 9/18 at 6 P.M. CST on Choice Literacy for literacy leaders. My topic is on communicating feedback: misconceptions, challenges, and first steps. Enroll below.